My sister Jen has lived in Southern Virginia for over ten years and I have visited her annually since her move. Her home in Gloucester Point is only a short twenty minutes from Williamsburg yet I had never visited perhaps Virginia’s most historic, number one historic place: Colonial Williamsburg.
Of course I’d heard of it before and wanted to check it out but the time never seemed right. Once kids came along, the thought of going to a huge tourist destination like Colonial Williamsburg seemed out of the question. I could only imagine the meltdowns, tantrums and boredom on my young children’s face. I’d have to wait until they were older.
A timely article in the Washington Post made me change my mind. The article, called “Williamsburg: Actors bring to life the nuanced tangle of history, heroism and daily living” intrigued me and light a spark of fresh interest in my mind. The article discusses the use of reenactments to teach people about the past. There are revolutionaries, slaves, wig makers, blacksmiths and even a real working plantation. What a better place to learn about history than a real live “living” museum?
Of course I’d heard about Colonial Williamsburg before yet didn’t fully understand what it was until I went there. Per Wikipedia:
“Colonial Williamsburg is the private foundation representing the historic district of the city of Williamsburg, Virginia, USA. The district includes buildings dating from 1699 to 1780 which made colonial Virginia’s capital”.
Colonial Williamsburg was opened in 1930 by the project’s founder, Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin with the help of the Rockefellers in effort for the public to have a living museum in which “the future could learn from the past. The major goal of the Restoration was to re-create the physical colonial environment and to facilitate education about the origins of the idea of America, which was conceived during the decades before the American Revolution”.
My sister and I had no idea if four young children ages three to six would be able to do Colonial Williamsburg and actually have fun. We knew it would be crowded and there would be a fair amount of walking. Yet we were ready for the challenge!
We left her house at 9 am thinking everything would go smoothly. The kids were packed in the car, we had snacks and water, and had already purchased discounted tickets online. All we had to do was redeem the tickets which would only take us a few minutes, right.
That was the first mistake we made. We drove to the overcrowded visitor center where my sister waited in a painfully long and disorganized line for almost an hour before we got the tickets. I waited with the four hyper getting near naughtiness kids. Thankfully there weren’t any major meltdowns…yet.
The visitor center is located about ten minutes away from the actual entrance to Colonial Williamsburg. Thus we had to load everyone back up in the car, drive again and find a parking spot which was fairly easy since most people must park at the visitor center and take a shuttle bus.
An hour and a half after we started, we finally arrived at the entrance to Colonial Williamsburg to see a small, relatively unknown ticket counter with no line, where we could have redeemed our tickets, avoiding an hour of extra hassle and waste of time. Oh well. Next time we’ll know.
By that point it was already past twelve and knowing we had four hungry kids on our hands, we had to make a beeline to the nearest place to eat. Being in a touristy place, there were not many affordable options. We had to settle for the quickest, easiest place which of course wasn’t healthy and was way overpriced. I paid $26 for two kids hot-dogs, chips, lemonade and a kid’s size BBQ pork sandwich for me. It wasn’t great but it did the job until we were attacked by bees! Our lunch was a stressful, quick affair as we swatted at bees, did the dance to get away from them without getting stung and scarfed down our food as quick as possible so we could get out of there. Oh well.
Finally, by almost one o’clock we were there, fed, and ready to see the sights! I was concerned that the kids were going to loose interest at any moment given the bad start to the day but to my delight they embraced every minute from then on. The actors at Colonial Williamsburg were the key ingredient. They kept the kids interested and engaged in every building we entered. There was always something new to learn and something to see. The kids even received a kid-friendly map that showed all the sights for kids and allowed them to get a punch in each place they visited. After three punches, they received a free souvenier which they loved. Then, it all became a game for them (being a parent, I’ve learned that having some kind of game at a museum or historic site is key to keeping a child’s interest in being there).
Here are some of the highlights of the places we visited:
First stop at the Weaver. Here the kids saw a live demonstration of how people in colonial times made wool and dyed yarns.
Here are some of the dyed yarns and threads:
Next stop: The colonial garden where we saw all the plants and vegetables grown and learned about how the colonists watered their plants (below a photo of my daughter learning how to operate the watering bottle):
The working well:
Fragrant English boxwoods for sale (my most favorite type of shrub):
The lovely pomegranate opened and waiting for the birds to eat:
The historic courthouse:
Just when the kids started to misbehave…
The ox drawn carts:
Cool historic buildings along the Duke of Gloucester Street. Here is a brew pub:
A stop in the Bindery where the printer prepares newspapers, books, and more on his fully-operational colonial press. Apparently kids as young as thirteen would come here to start an apprenticeship which was one of the better jobs in a town that had no school.
A stop inside the milliner and tailor where beautiful clothing was custom made for men and women. (My young daughter loved the gowns!):
The 18th center silversmith who was an artist in his own right during the days:
Next we stopped at the wig maker where I was asked if I was looking to be fitted for a wig! In Colonial times, the very wealthy and affluent people which made up only 5% of the population wore wigs to show their status.
Here are lovely wigs for women:
And an entire wall in case you don’t want one custom made:
We continued our walk down towards the Public Gaol (prison) where I knew the kids would enjoy checking out the old cells. Back in Colonial times, the jail owner lived and ran the jail, with his entire family of 14 children living within the small jailhouse. The children would have to walk past the creepy cells every night on their way to bed. I wouldn’t think they got a lot of sleep with the prisoners nearby! (Note: I did not get a good picture of the jailhouse as the lighting was poor).
After our creepy visit to the gaol, we reached the last place we had time and energy for, the historic Governor’s Palace and grounds. Here is a picture of the majestic entrance to the Governor’s Palace where the governor lived and you can do 35-minute tours of the full-restored home. With young, restless kids we passed on the tour and instead opted for the gardens out back which have a huge maze made out of fragrant hedges.
The gardens and maze:
At the end of our stay, I think we worn them all out!
After a long afternoon of walking and exploring life in Colonial times, it was time to head back and get our tired children home. All in all, the day visit was much better than I had anticipated and my almost seven-year-old son said he loved it with a big grin and thumbs up sign. Next time we visit, we will definitely return. There is so much more to see and it truly is fascinating.
If you go:
– I highly recommend skipping the visitor center altogether and going directly to downtown Williamsburg where you can easily park and walk over to the small ticket window to buy your pass and get your map for the day. It will save you a lot of time and hassle.
– I would either pack a lunch or eat outside of Colonial Williamsburg on the main square. There are tons of restaurants and sandwich shops which are much nicer and cheaper than inside Colonial Williamsburg. The main square is only a block away.
-Plan to arrive early in the morning, right when it opens to avoid crowds. Going during the week is your best bet and not during high season if you can help it. It was still relatively crowded for a mid-October day yet we were still able to get into every place we wanted to and not be pushed out by crowds.
-If you have children, you can rent colonial costumes at the visitor center so they can dress up for the day. There is also a horse and carriage ride and tour and a Kid’s Corner and orientation walk. (We didn’t do any of these things but would consider it next time we go).
-Definitely bring a stroller for young kids and wear good walking shoes!
-Finally, make sure you get a punch kid’s map to keep them busy and interested. Without the map, I bet my kids would have lasted not even an hour.